Special Report

Rush Fiddles With Nero

Where the conservative great one discovered flummery.

By 5.30.08

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The other day Rush Hudson Limbaugh IV was discussing the new Scott McClellan book with its attendant inaccuracies, hypocrisies, disloyalties, sanctimonies and vanities, when he suddenly exclaimed: "This is flummery!" This sent some of his listeners off to the dictionary to discover the meaning of this rarely used word. There they found that it described a hollow sort of expression, language that addresses a subject elaborately without clarifying anything.

But a sizable subset of Mister Limbaugh's loyal listeners chuckled in recognition. They knew that this phrase was much beloved of Nero Wolfe, a fictional detective, a true armchair detective in that he rarely ventured from his brownstone on West 35th Street in New York City. Wolfe was portrayed as an eccentric genius, a portly man who ate only gourmet food and spent a few hours every day tending to his magnificent collection of orchids.

Like many conservative and intellectual types, Rush loves this character and returns periodically to reread the collection of Nero Wolfe mysteries, consisting of 33 novels and 39 short stories. Listeners can always tell when Rush is back in those pages: he begins dropping trademark lines into his daily monologues and dialogues. Another classic that you might recognize if you are a fan, perhaps without knowing its provenance, is this one: "I am using my intelligence guided by experience."

In an unguarded moment about a decade ago, Limbaugh let slip that "sometimes I think I am Nero Wolfe." I had the idea at the time of putting together capital to produce a movie with Rush in the role of Wolfe. The Hollywood stars who had played Wolfe over the years never quite filled his shoes. The one man whose physical characteristics and general demeanor made him ideal to play Wolfe was Sydney Greenstreet. Ironically, Greenstreet played Wolfe successfully in the radio series, "The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe," which aired in 1950-51, but never in a visual medium. Limbaugh's huge audience would have guaranteed success for the film, but when he trimmed down his waistline, the project was no longer a natural fit.

Conservatives love the Wolfe character because he resists frivolous change while being open to intellectual adventure. He stays home, avoids machinery, does not enjoy physical contact but really knows how to eat. What's not to like? Add to that his griping about the income tax and he becomes irresistible.

On the other hand, whenever Wolfe actually articulates a religious or a political view, he speaks as a thoroughgoing atheist and a left-wing radical. He scoffs at the notion of a Creator, hiding behind the omniscience of science, as if knowing how things work solves the question of why things work. This attitude was all too common in the first half of the 20th century, a worldview I like to call Omni-Science. He also takes for granted that the Democrat types are the good guys.

One novel, The Doorbell Rang, was a thinly veiled attack against J. Edgar Hoover. In the last scene, the unnamed "Director" knocks on the door of the brownstone to thank Wolfe for his help in clearing up a mystery, but the detective snubs him and leaves him standing at the stoop. After that volume was published, the late John Wayne sent the author a letter saying that he regretfully could not continue in good conscience to follow the series.

This should not be too surprising, considering that the author, Rex Stout, had been an appointee of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. Interestingly, he had also served the earlier President Roosevelt as a Navy Yeoman on the presidential yacht. Among other achievements, Stout was credited with creating the idea of Bank Day in American schools. I still can remember that being active when I was in 3rd Grade. On Wednesdays each child brought in a few cents and the teacher had it deposited in bank accounts with passbooks in our names.

All in all, Limbaugh's enjoyment of, and identification with, the Nero Wolfe books creates a small personal bridge between him and the literary types in his audience. We can just close our eyes and imagine him pondering the great questions of the day in the inimitable Wolfe style, with an expensive beer open on the desk, his eyes tightly shut in concentration and his lips moving in and out. Not least, we can all flatter ourselves that one day he will realize that he needs a sidekick just like the great detective had Archie Goodwin, and he might just give us a call.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.